Descartes

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss extensional objects vs. intentional objects
  2. Define ontology

We’ve previously discussed philosophical realism and understand that in the realist scheme there is the world we experience (phenomenal) and there is the realm of Truth (noumenal). According to this mode of thinking, we cannot experience things-in-themselves because what they truly are, their noumenal reality, is obscured by our phenomenal sense organs. We can have a physical engagement with things, but only our minds can accurately perceive what things actually are like.

Over the last couple of weeks we’ve been reading and discussing Buddhism and the call for us to experience the world as it is, free from our ego-motivated projections. The “Heart Sutra” implores us to meditate upon the emptiness of all things (shunyata) and cultivate compassion for all sentients so that we can reduce the amount of suffering in the world. Beyond the obvious sufferings of injuries and privations, what is the root of suffering? Our suffering is rooted in our belief that there is a noumenal dimension onto which the truth of things (and ourselves) adheres. As we cultivate compassion for the suffering of others and as we contemplate and gain insight into the nature of emptiness (shunyata) we can begin to experience and appreciate the fullness of our interrelatedness to all things.

With our reading of René Descartes we have a very different project. Descartes sets out, in his Meditations, to demonstrate that the existence of God and the soul are best demonstrated using philosophical rather than theological methods; he states this in his letter of dedication to the faculty of theology at the Sorbonne in Paris. He argues the necessity for his philosophical project because believers, by definition, have the faith and unbelievers do not. The Roman Catholic Christian readily accepts and practices a belief that God exists and they know that He exists because the Holy Scriptures state that He exists. Christendom must believe the Holy Scriptures because the Holy Scriptures are a gift from God to humanity. Descartes, rightly so, points out that the unbeliever cannot be compelled to join the community of believers by this circular argument. And so Descartes takes it upon himself to win the souls of the unbelievers.

But Descartes is concerned with not only the spiritual lives of the unbelievers, he’s also interested in demonstrating the power of his philosophical methodology for solving scientific problems and providing definitive proof of the existence of God and human minds (which appears to be synonymous with souls). He published his Discours de la méthode/Discourse on the Method in 1637, at the age of forty-one, and then published his Meditations in 1641. The Meditations, in his own words, proves “that God exists and that the mind is distinct from the body.” Descartes’ methodology entails deploying rigorous skepticism in the pursuit of reason.

In his “Preface to the Reader,” Descartes points out that the term “idea” has a double sense. On one register “idea” describes the material operation of an individual’s intellect (ἰδέα), but there is also the objective sense of the term in which our minds—by using ideas—grasp the truth of something (εἶδος). This brings us to a discussion of extension, a word that pops up in several places in the Descartes essay, and important for us to understand how philosophy has developed in the West since we last checked in with Plato and Socrates. This also gives us occasion to examine a significant field of philosophical exploration: ontology.

Recall that we have discussed metaphysics earlier this semester. It is the study of the nature of the universe, of the self, existence, cause and effect, and so on. At the core of metaphysical discussion are answers to two questions: 1) what is there? And 2) what is that like?

Ontology is the subfield of metaphysics which explores the nature of existence and being. The word is constructed using ontos– which means “being” and -logos, the study of. Ontology seeks to understand the nature of things as they exist-in-themselves.

Under philosophical realism we come to see that we cannot interact with things-in-themselves, only their phenomenal expression. Their noumenal core is always beyond our direct experience and we only grasp glimpses of what they “really” are through our ability to use our minds. We can reason about what they really are, but we can’t directly experience them.

In the Middle Ages period folks in European philosophy investigated whether or not things in our minds were real. St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093–1109, is credited with creating the first “ontological argument.” What was his ontological argument? Using ontology to demonstrate the existence of God; this is something that René Descartes attempts five centuries later.

Ontological arguments begin from a priori (Latin, “from the earlier”) statements, that is, statements that are understood to be true independent of our experience. For example, 3+2=5, whether or not we experience this or not.

Anselm’s argument goes this way:

  1. It is a conceptual truth (or, so to speak, true by definition) that God is a being than which none greater can be imagined (that is, the greatest possible being that can be imagined).
  2. God exists as an idea in the mind.
  3. A being that exists as an idea in the mind and in reality is, other things being equal, greater than a being that exists only as an idea in the mind.
  4. Thus, if God exists only as an idea in the mind, then we can imagine something that is greater than God (that is, a greatest possible being that does exist).
  5. But we cannot imagine something that is greater than God (for it is a contradiction to suppose that we can imagine a being greater than the greatest possible being that can be imagined.)
  6. Therefore, God exists.

Anselm’s is an argument for the existence of intentional objects—mental objects, like Popeye, or Cthulu, actually exist.

Extension, by contrast to intention, describes the property things and that they exist in more than one dimension. They can be stretched, they can occupy space, they can do stuff in the world.

Descartes makes a significant use of what he calls “real distinctions.” Real distinctions illuminate how substances differ from one another. A substance, according to Descartes, is some object that can exist without another object, except for what God requires. We can imagine a mountain that exists whether or not people see them existing or not. Our imagined mountain exemplifies what Descartes means when he discusses substances. In contrast to substances Descartes presents what he calls modes of extended substances. For example, a sphere. “Being sphere shaped is a mode of an extended substance. For example, a sphere requires an object extended in three dimensions in order to exist: an unextended sphere cannot be conceived without contradiction.” (Justin Skirry, “René Descartes: The Mind-Body Distinction”)

The first version the mind-body problem is found in this excerpt from the Sixth Meditation:

“[O]n the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing [that is, a mind], and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it (AT VII 78: CSM II 54).”

Notice that the argument is given from the first person perspective (as are the entire Meditations). This “I” is, of course, Descartes insofar as he is a thinking thing or mind, and the argument is intended to work for any “I” or mind. So, for present purposes, it is safe to generalize the argument by replacing “I” with “mind” in the relevant places:

  1. I have a clear and distinct idea of the mind as a thinking, non-extended thing.
  2. I have a clear and distinct idea of body as an extended, non-thinking thing.
  3. Therefore, the mind is really distinct from the body and can exist without it.

“Contemporary discussions of the nature of intentionality are an integral part of discussions of the nature of minds: what are minds and what is it to have a mind? They arise in the context of ontological and metaphysical questions about the fundamental nature of mental states: states such as perceiving, remembering, believing, desiring, hoping, knowing, intending, feeling, experiencing, and so on. What is it to have such mental states? How does the mental relate to the physical, i.e., how are mental states related to an individual’s body, to states of his or her brain, to his or her behavior and to states of affairs in the world?” (Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality“)

“Why is intentionality so-called? For reasons soon to be explained, in its philosophical usage, the meaning of the word ‘intentionality’ should not be confused with the ordinary meaning of the word ‘intention.’ As the Latin etymology of ‘intentionality’ indicates, the relevant idea of directedness or tension (an English word which derives from the Latin verb tendere) arises from pointing towards or attending to some target. In medieval logic and philosophy, the Latin word intentio was used for what contemporary philosophers and logicians nowadays call a ‘concept’ or an ‘intension’: something that can be both true of non-mental things and properties—things and properties lying outside the mind—and present to the mind.” (Jacob, Pierre, “Intentionality“)